The Witch's Curse
By Keith McGowan, Yoko Tanaka
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2013 Keith McGowan
All rights reserved.
I DON'T WISH to hunt animals who were once children. But I must. I'm woken from my long sleep by Monique, the witch of these woods, and told whom I have to hunt next. I'm cursed, you see.
It's a terrible fate.
If you are a child, you might well ask, What kind of terrible fate is that? We are the ones being turned into animals and hunted, not you. And I admit it. Those I gallop after, bow in hand, have it worse than I do.
It's worse to be hunted than to be the hunter.
Still, you can't imagine what it's like being me. When I halt by the river so my horse can drink and I see my face reflected in the rippling currents, a villain staring back. I never wanted to be a villain. I was going to settle down to a grand estate — my family's — with forty servants and a dozen carriages. Centuries ago, you see, I was a wealthy young man and, besides, a great hunter of animals. There's nothing wrong with that, is there?
My friends and I would ride into this valley. We'd blow our hunting horns, daring the animals to run from us. We always gave them a fighting chance, you see? Then we'd chase them down on our horses. It was a thrill, showing off our skills as horsemen and archers. I was the most skilled of all and proud of it.
Had I heard these woods were accursed? Yes, I'd heard that children shouldn't enter the valley. There were rumors — of lost children disappearing and an evil witch who lived here. But I never saw the witch or any evil creature. And I wasn't a child. None of us hunters were.
I thought, What does it have to do with me?
I learned soon enough, though, that the terrible fate of the children was tied to my own fate, as tight as my horse to its bit. That some of the animals we hunted WERE the lost children, transformed into woodland beasts by the witch Monique. I should have known. It should have been obvious. But they ran from our horn blasts and our horses just like the other animals. There was nothing in their eyes to warn me when I took an arrow from my quiver, nocked it, drew back my bowstring, aimed, and let the arrow fly.
Now I am cursed because of it, and the absolute worst thing about my curse is ... knowing the truth. That the animals I now hunt — with my special arrows — once were children, they played childish games, and, just maybe, they lay alone at night, watched shadows on the wall, and dreamed of evil creatures that might soon be chasing them, like me.
So I am writing in this logbook of mine with the hope that it might someday get out of this accursed valley — I do not know how.
So that children may learn.
Because, children, I am NOT pleased to meet you.
And if by chance you ever do see my face, the one I see in the river when my horse stops to drink, then do me one big favor — if you can remember it.
Run! As fast as your legs will carry you. All four of them. I fear, though, that by then it will be too late. ...
* * *
So wrote David Bittworth one summer night in his stone lodge in the mountains, far from town or city. He wrote in a small book he called his log, using a stubby pencil he sharpened himself with the sharp blade of his cooking knife. Around him stood animals, forever still: a bear, a fox, a huge caribou, an opossum, an armadillo, a duck, rabbits and weasels and beavers; near the door that opened to the mountainside stood two wolves — they had been sisters, Lisa and Nicki. So many still eyes staring at him or at the crackling flames in the fireplace or out the dark window, depending on where they were posed.
Preserved, Monique called it.
David leaned back, stretching his feet in comfortable slippers toward the fire. He wore a white nightrobe that hung from his broad shoulders. He looked very strong. He closed the logbook and kept it on the arm of his chair, the firelight flickering over it, until he rose and went to the leather bag of arrows that hung near the hearth. He took that bag down — his quiver — drew out the magic arrows, and stuck the small book and pencil into the bottom. He put the arrows back, checking each as he did for straightness. Only the straightest arrows were good for the hunt. They flew accurately through the air then, and struck whatever he aimed at.
Unlucky children, he thought.
SOL AND CONNIE HIT THE ROAD
SOLOMON AND CONSTANCE BLINK — Sol and Connie for short — hiked up a lonely country road. Sol was eleven and Connie was eight, going on nine. Sol's shoelace was coming untied. Connie's jumper was twisted, and no matter how many times she'd tried to pull it straight, it didn't feel right. Dirt smudges covered her arms.
Knapsacks bulged on their backs. Sol slung his in front of him to unzip it and push a water bottle back inside. They'd already drunk more than half their water, and the sun had dropped behind the mountains. It was getting late.
It had been Sol's idea to leave Grand Creek on their own, set off on this road toward the looming western mountains, to cross the bridge and enter these woods. Sol had checked the bus schedule in town and asked. There was supposed to be one more bus leaving Grand Creek today and driving up this road. That bus would head west through the mountains to the city where Sol and Connie's aunt Heather lived. Sol thought they could trust their aunt Heather — their mother's sister — much more than they could trust their father and stepmother, Mr. and Mrs. Blink, whom they were leaving behind.
They would flag the bus down when it passed.
That had been Sol's idea.
"It should come soon," he said to Connie, glancing back down the road for the thousandth time as they walked. It had been more than two hours since they'd started hiking.
Connie nodded. She trusted her older brother maybe more than he trusted himself.
Sol, on the other hand, didn't totally trust Connie. He cared for her, of course, loved her, and could name many of her good qualities. He would always watch out for her. But it was just a fact, as Sol saw it: Sometimes his younger sister could be tricky.
"Aunt Heather will be surprised to see us," said Connie.
"Very surprised," Sol said.
"When was the last time we saw her?" she asked.
"Five years ago."
"I hardly remember her."
"She's nice," Sol said. "I hope."
Connie hesitated, then finally asked, "And Dad?"
Sol didn't know what to say. He just shook his head and crouched to tie his shoelace.
Connie didn't ask again. They'd have time to talk about it all later, or so she thought.
Sol pulled the knot tight on his sneaker. He stood and looked back along the empty road for the thousand-and-first time.
They hiked on, believing that the more distance they put between themselves and Grand Creek, the better.
EARLIER THAT DAY
AS TO THEIR FATHER, Mr. Blink, Sol had tried to write a goodbye note to him before they'd fled their home. Sol and Connie had been packing hurriedly in their shared bedroom. There had been little time to spare. Still, Sol had wasted a moment to find a paper and pencil and write the note.
As he did, he glanced out the bedroom window at the house next door: Fay Holaderry's house, twisty vines climbing up its side. Holaderry was the reason Sol and Connie were leaving. She was an evil witch who cooked and ate children — sometimes with fine cloth napkins and candles lit, other times sitting in the glow of prime-time TV and snacking from the plate on her lap. She had caught Connie that very day, then Sol, tied them up in her secret underground kitchen, and gotten so far as to heat the sauce she would eat them with — a marjoram goulash — before Sol and Connie had gotten out of her house.
They'd pushed her into her fire pit. They should have been safe. But every time Sol or Connie glanced through the window at her house, it was hard for them not to imagine her face appearing suddenly in one of the windows. Just the thought of it was frightening. Also, Holaderry had magical helpers in Grand Creek who looked like ordinary people. So Sol and Connie had decided to pack and leave as soon as possible, as in right now that very second.
Even so, Sol took a moment to sit on the lower bunk bed and write his father the note. Neither their father nor their stepmother was at home. Connie stood beside him and read over his shoulder.
This is what Sol wrote:
We are leaving right away. Grand Creek isn't safe. Get out as quickly as you can. We'll meet later, and I can explain it all to you then.
Your son, Sol
PS — Don't worry about the babysitter, she's been taken care of.
Even before he finished the note, though, Sol realized he hardly meant a word of it. One clue to that was that he did not mention where they were going — to Aunt Heather's. It was as if he didn't want his dad to know. Actually, Sol thought, he didn't. He understood then what he'd kept pushed into the tiniest corner of his mind at least since the night he'd overheard a private conversation between his father and stepmother.
Sol and Connie's parents had been cooperating with Holaderry.
Sol saw that he hadn't even written Love, Sol, at the end of his note, just Your son, Sol. Did he even love his father, he wondered? Actually, Sol should have been wondering about the Your son part too. But he never suspected even then that the man he called his father was really his uncle.
Sol wondered what he should do about the note. He wasn't sure, so he put it aside for the moment on the little table by the bed.
"Ten minutes, one bag," he said, turning to Connie.
But instead of going back to packing, Connie chose exactly then to head out of the bedroom.
"Where are you going?" Sol asked.
"If we're catching a bus, we'll need snacks," she said, stopping in the doorway.
"Okay, good thinking. Bring a bottle of water too," Sol said. "But hurry — we've got to get out of here."
"I am hurrying. You're the one wasting time, asking me questions." And with that, Connie rushed down the hall.
Trying to forget the note, Sol went to his knapsack. Cardboard boxes were stacked everywhere in the room. Sol and Connie's family had arrived in Grand Creek only two days before, and they'd hardly had time to unpack their boxes from the move. Sol was faced with the question: What was it that was most important to him? Even before writing his note, Sol had already packed the most important thing of all: old yellowing papers — his mother's last scientific publication. Sol and Connie's mother had been a brilliant scientist, one of the earliest to predict global warming and the melting of the ice shelf in Antarctica. But she'd fallen into the Antarctic Ocean while conducting her research and was never heard from again.
There'd been a time when Sol had imagined that his mother wasn't really gone — that she would come walking through the door one day. But Sol was, above all, logical, and he had finally admitted to himself on his eleventh birthday that such a wish was not. What he had left from her were some photos and videos, stored online, and this original copy of her final treatise.
No, Sol thought now, he had something else from his mother too. What he'd inherited from her: scientific smarts.
Glancing at cardboard boxes full of his scientific belongings, Sol knew that he couldn't take any of them with him. He had already thrown clothes into his knapsack on top of his mom's scientific paper, plus Holaderry's leather-bound journal, which they had stolen from the witch's house during a break-in. That journal had information in it and stories from Holaderry's life. He could never have left it behind. On the very first page Holaderry had written her awful title for the journal: How to Cook and Eat Children.
He'd also packed a paperback book called The Mismeasure of Man, and then he added a little blank notebook that he thought might come in handy — the notebook he'd torn paper out of to write the note for his father.
He tossed in the pencil too.
There simply wasn't much room left in his knapsack. He couldn't possibly pack his telescope, his microscope, or his most complex invention to date — his heat detection device, which was still outside on Holaderry's lawn anyway. And he had no time to waste looking through all of his boxes.
Still Sol dug through one box and found, just where he thought it was, a small black cube. He smiled — something he hadn't done the whole time he was packing. That cube was a computer he'd built long ago, with a microphone and a speaker built into it but no screen. It was one of his earliest inventions. He'd named it his Know-It-All Cube. This, then, was what he wanted to take with him — for sentimental reasons, really, he realized. He hadn't used it in over a year.
"On," he said to it.
"Cube on," it said back in his own voice. He had recorded all of the words it spoke himself.
He was surprised that its batteries still had some charge in them. Good batteries, he told himself, were very important.
"Off," he said to it.
"Off," it said in his voice. He'd forgotten to put a light on it when he'd built it, so Sol had to trust that the cube had turned itself off. Still, if it hadn't, Sol knew, it would speak up after a while.
He stuffed it into his knapsack, then thought of something else he wanted to bring with him — something else that couldn't be replaced. A Valentine's Day card he'd gotten in his class last year from a secret valentine. It was the only card like that he'd ever gotten in his life. Sol wasn't the kind of boy who normally got valentine cards from girls. That card was scientific proof that at least one girl had liked him at his old school after all.
Where had he hidden it? Inside one of his books. He had to flick through the pages of three — time was ticking — until he found it inside a thick tome on meteorology.
Connie came back just as Sol was putting the valentine card into his pack. He put it in quickly. He'd never shown it to his little sister. That would just have been embarrassing.
Connie gave him a water bottle and a small bag of potato chips — she'd brought two. Sol packed his bag of chips and the bottle.
"Come on, hurry up," he said to Connie.
* * *
CONNIE, feeling the pressure, went quickly to her knapsack. She had a simple plan for packing fast. She wasn't going to bring that much.
Anyway, she'd already packed the three things most important to her.
Those were: (1) a figurine of the Monster from the Deep, with fake seaweed dripping off of it, that she liked to stand on her dresser; (2) a framed photo of her old cat, Quantum, whom she'd had to give away to a friend before they'd moved to Grand Creek; and (3) her favorite pair of socks, which she called her snake socks because they had a diamond pattern on them that she thought looked like snake scales.
Connie packed her bag of potato chips and a few more clothes, including a warm sweater, although it was the last day of August. Then she stepped between boxes to where something very important lay, leaning against the bunk bed.
An ancient cane.
* * *
THEY had grabbed the cane just after running out of Holaderry's secret underground kitchen. In a short hallway outside the kitchen had stood a glass cabinet full of strange objects, including a giant ceramic flower; a tiger statue leaning against an old-style mirror; a denim vest painted with the words Rattlers #61, a rattlesnake, and a skull; and the ancient wood cane, its handle carved in the shape of a duck's head.
Before they had rushed up the stairs to escape, Sol had said, "Doesn't that cane remind you of someone?"
"Definitely," Connie had answered.
So they'd opened the glass doors quickly, taken the cane, then run up the stairs and carried it back with them.
Now Connie picked it up and wondered, What if they had taken some of the other things in the cabinet too? But they'd been in a rush to get out of Holaderry's house. The cane had been most important. Its duck's head did remind her of someone — a woman they had met in Grand Creek who ran a shop called All Creatures, Big and Small, and who walked with a normal, modern cane. Connie thought of that woman as the only nice person in all of Grand Creek. They were going to bring this ancient cane to her.
The cane wouldn't fit in Connie's knapsack, though. So, she thought, I'm done packing. Except, she realized, there was one other thing she was bringing with her that also didn't go in her knapsack, or anywhere at all. It was this: a secret she should probably tell Sol soon, she thought, after seeing what he had packed. She hoped Sol wouldn't be too upset. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Witch's Curse by Keith McGowan, Yoko Tanaka. Copyright © 2013 Keith McGowan. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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